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The Contract Moment

by Michael Frederick Langhoff

The contract moment...

The contract moment...

With every work of art there is a contract moment where the curator, administrator, institution, or organization must formalize an agreement about the artists’ work and his or her intent upon its exhibition.   Agreements may take place as formal contracts between the exhibitor and the artist, or as informal correspondence through email, but either way there is some sort of agreement from each party as to what to expect in regard to the exchange of work for space.  In an ideal setting, the exchange is mutually beneficial for both parties.   All of this we know.

But what about work that doesn’t require physical space, or work that only requires space for a brief moment such as a performance art or art that diminishes over time?  The introduction of non-object art throughout the late 60s and early 70s required a dynamic shift between artists and museum institutions.  This shift was a reminder that with each artist there requires a sort of learning curve for every institution and with or without the help of contracts, there needs to be a willingness to learn.

I will for the time being avoid the looming institutional critique and instead focus on the artist and his or her relationship to these entities as moving and changing support systems.  Without a malleable framework, the support system hardens into an institutional archetype; An old paradigm for old forms.

We must not build on top of outdated paradigms.  If new trends outmode our current frameworks, perhaps it would be best to develop new ones.  If the contract is constructed from what we know or expect from a proposed work of art, what good is it when we encounter something that exceeds the agreeable parameters or contract limitations?  Do we shift the system or do we shift the work of art?  Not often does the work of art make it out on the other end of this question without changing slightly, but once in a while the system is required to make a greater shift and it is these instances which I hope to elaborate on over the course of the next few weeks.  By honing in on the dynamic between these important love-hate relationships, we can highlight an important exchange that takes place that will perhaps give us the ability to see eye-to-eye as collaborative forces rather than opposing ones.

As an institution that is obligated to the manner of contemporary art, it is within reason that such a place would be looking for new, innovative, unique and often times (admittedly) strange works that are tapping into uncharted territories, or at the very least, the not-so-charted territories.  However, the artist, and all his or her vigor, must undergo a laundry list of liabilities and sanctions that prevent the work from being what it could be in order to exhibit it how it must be seen rather than how it ought to be seen.  This frustration is nothing new to artists who have interacted on any form of base level with any institution or organization.   And occasionally this limitation brings to bear a much stronger work of art in the end.

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba "Breathing Is Free"

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba "Breathing Is Free"

Let us take for example Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s Breathing is Free project in which he is attempting to run the distance equivalent to the diameter of the earth (12,756.3 km) as a memorial to refugees who spend their lives searching for a new home.  After speaking with Trevor Martin, Director of SAIC’s Department of Exhibitions, there has been a number of ‘contract moments’ with the school in preparing for this particular event to happen in the city of Chicago.   Just to name a few, they had to negotiate costs for hiring two assistants to photograph and film the run as well as a driver, not to mention the navigator that would drive across the city with them.  Another concern was the liability in hiring these sub-contractors.   Let us not forget risk.  What if the artist gets injured while running through the unforgiving traffic ridden streets of Chicago?  To top it off, Nguyen-Hatsushiba was injured after agreeing to the project and now they are negotiating to have 15 runners complete the run in place of him.  This proposes a new sort of development that could potentially enhance the outcome of the project by launching it into a more collaborative gain.

Although contracts, loan forms and letters of intent have significant value for all participating parties, it is within these seemingly minor negotiations that require flexibility between the artist and the institution.  The communication that takes place (at variable degrees), is what I would consider the contract moment.  It is within this moment that I am proposing a platform, framework or at the very least a resource for use that will be helpful for all ends of the spectrum when considering this agreement between persons and entities that is perhaps much more than signing the dotted line.

Lets face it, with new forms, non-forms, non objects, temporary and dematerializing art, there often lacks an adequate framework for institutions to license an exhibition that will host these types of projects.  When works of art push against the etiquette, there must then be a reevaluation towards the limitations in relationship to the mission of the institution.  and it is exactly these dimensions which, when explored will create a learning curve for all ends and perhaps a resource of types that will challenge the re-scripting of contracts in order to be able to host a new kind of work.

Instead of understanding these agreements as limitations, let us begin to view them as platforms for something new.